Tarp Camping 101: Essentials for Beginners

Tarp Camping: An ultralight Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) tarp pitched on a beach with crystal-blue waters

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Tarp camping offers a unique and immersive connection with nature while providing a lightweight and versatile shelter option.

Whether you’re a novice camper or someone seeking to expand their outdoor skills, this guide will walk you through the essentials of tarp camping.

In this post, we’ll delve into the world of tarp camping, exploring why it’s gaining popularity among outdoor enthusiasts.

You’ll discover the benefits, gear, and techniques that make tarp camping a fantastic choice for those looking to save weight, and enjoy simplicity.

Getting Started with Tarps

Now that you’re eager to explore tarp camping, let’s begin with the basics to ensure you’re well-prepared for your outdoor adventure.

Understanding the Appeal

Tarp camping has been gaining popularity for several compelling reasons:

  • Weight: First and foremost, it’s lightweight.
  • Cost-effective: You won’t need to break the bank to enjoy this outdoor experience. Tarps are affordable and readily available, making it accessible to a wide range of campers.
  • Versatility: Tarps can be set up in various configurations to adapt to changing weather conditions and landscapes.
  • Connectedness with nature: Unlike tents, tarps have no walls to separate you from the world around you.

The Gear You Will Need

Before embarking on your tarp camping journey, you’ll need to assemble the necessary gear. Here’s a list of essentials to get you started:

  1. Tarp: Of course, you’ll need a tarp, and the market offers various sizes and materials to choose from. Consider your specific needs and preferences when selecting one.
  2. Groundsheet: A groundsheet is essential to protect you and your gear from moisture and provide a barrier between you and the ground. Common materials include Tyvek, silnylon, and Cuben fiber.
  3. Ropes and Guylines: These will help you secure your tarp and keep it taut. Opt for lightweight, strong ropes, and consider some with reflective properties for visibility.
  4. Stakes: Sturdy stakes are crucial for anchoring your tarp. MSR Mini-Groundhogs are a popular choice among campers.
  5. Sleep System: Your sleeping bag and pad should provide comfort and insulation. Don’t forget a trash bag, which can be a versatile addition for wet weather.
  6. Bug Netting: If you’re camping in heavily insect-infested areas, consider adding bug netting to your setup. Bug bivvies and head nets are lightweight options.

Tarp Types

The type of tarp you choose will impact your camping experience, so let’s explore the various options.

1. Square Tarps

Tarp Camping: A square tarp

Square tarps are the most common and versatile option. As the name suggests, they have equal dimensions on all sides, forming a perfect square. Here are some key advantages and considerations:


  • Spacious: Square tarps provide ample room for both solo and two-person setups. If you’re camping with a friend or simply prefer extra space, square tarps are great.
  • Versatile: Their balanced shape makes them adaptable to various configurations, allowing you to experiment with different setups.
  • Weather Protection: Square tarps offer excellent coverage and protection from the elements. They’re a reliable choice in various weather conditions.


  • Weight: Square tarps can be slightly heavier compared to other shapes, but the added space and versatility often make up for the minimal weight difference.

2. Rectangular Tarps

Tarp Camping: A rectangular tarp

Rectangular tarps are longer than they are wide, making them a preferred choice for solo campers. Here’s what you need to know about them:


  • Solo Camping: These tarps are designed with solo campers in mind. They offer a snug fit and efficient coverage for one person.
  • Weight: Rectangular tarps are often lighter than square ones, making them an excellent option for ultralight backpackers.
  • Weather Protection: Like square tarps, rectangular tarps provide solid protection against rain and wind.


  • Space: If you plan to camp with a partner or prefer extra room to spread out your gear, a rectangular tarp might feel a bit cramped.

3. Asymmetrical Tarps

Tarp Camping: An asymmetrical tarp

Asymmetrical tarps are tailored for a specific purpose: use with asymmetrical hammocks. Here’s what you should know:


  • Hammock Compatibility: Asymmetrical tarps work exceptionally well with asymmetrical hammocks, providing optimal coverage and protection.
  • Weight: These tarps are often lightweight, aligning with the preferences of hammock campers.


  • Ground Camping: Asymmetrical tarps aren’t the best choice for ground camping. Their design doesn’t provide the same coverage and adaptability as square or rectangular tarps.

4. Tapered Tarps

Tarp Camping: A tapered tarp

Tapered tarps are rectangular tarps with one end narrower than the other. They’re designed to maximize space efficiency while minimizing weight.


  • Space Efficiency: Tapered tarps save weight by reducing excess material while still providing adequate coverage for solo campers.
  • Ultralight: If you’re an ultralight backpacker looking to minimize weight, a tapered tarp can be a suitable choice.


  • Restricted Space: The narrower end may limit your freedom of movement and comfort.

5. Cat-Cut Tarps

Tarp Camping: A cat-cut tarp

Cat-cut tarps are engineered to maintain a perfect tautness when pitched, thanks to their carefully designed curves. While they offer advantages, they come with their own set of considerations:


  • Taut Pitches: Cat-cut tarps excel at achieving fully-taut pitches, ensuring maximum protection against the elements.


  • Price: Cat-cut tarps tend to be more expensive than other options due to their specialized design.
  • Limited Versatility: If you can’t fully pitch the tarp as intended (e.g., trees are too close together), it may not perform optimally.

Setting Up Your Tarp

Tarp Camping: An ultralight, asymmetrical tarp perched on a hillside during a breathtaking sunset

Setting up your tarp shelter is a skill that every hiker needs to master. It’s not complicated, but it does require some know-how and a bit of practice.

Finding the Right Spot

Choosing the perfect spot to pitch your tarp can be challenging, but it’s essential for a comfortable and dry camping experience. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Avoid the Best-Looking Spots: While flat, open areas may seem ideal, they often collect water during heavy rain. Look for a slight slope where water won’t pool underneath you if it rains.
  • Sleep with Your Head Up the Hill: Position your tarp so that you sleep with your head uphill. This prevents blood from rushing to your head while you sleep, avoiding unwanted headaches.
  • No Trees, No Problem: If trees aren’t available, get creative. Use your hiking poles, oars, or branches to hold up the ends of your tarp.
  • Seek Sheltered Areas: Avoid setting up your tarp in exposed locations. While tarps offer good protection, they’re not ideal for blocking strong winds.
  • Pitch Against the Wind: If you expect bad weather, configure your tarp so that the prevailing wind and rain come from the sides.
  • Keep the Foot Side Low: To minimize rain and splatters on your feet, pitch the foot side of your tarp a little lower. This also ensures better rainwater runoff since you’ll be sleeping with your head uphill.

Stakes, Ropes, and Guylines

Properly securing your tarp is essential to keep it in place during adverse weather conditions. Here’s what you need to know about stakes, ropes, and guylines:

  • Stakes: Choose trustworthy stakes, like MSR Groundhogs, for your tarp. Skip cheap plastic or flimsy titanium stakes. Sturdy ones keep your tarp secure, even in the wind.
  • Guylines: Look for lightweight and strong guylines, ideally with reflective properties for nighttime visibility. Dyneema core ropes are excellent for their strength.

Final Thoughts

In this post, we’ve delved into the world of tarp camping, exploring why it’s gaining popularity among outdoor enthusiasts.

You’ve discovered the benefits, gear, and techniques that make tarp camping a fantastic choice for those looking to save weight and enjoy simplicity.

But remember, the fastest way to gain experience is to go out there and do it for yourself. Tarp camping is not just about surviving in the wild; it’s about thriving in the beauty of nature, embracing minimalism, and connecting with the great outdoors.

So go ahead, pack your tarp, and embark on your next adventure under the open sky. Happy tarping!

Interested in an ultralight backpacking tarp? Check out our TOP 5 guide that covers the lightest tarps on the planet.


Should I use a tarp or a tent?

Deciding between a tarp and a tent hinges on your camping style and the conditions you’ll encounter. Tarps are lightweight and suit minimalists, like ultralight backpackers. Tents offer better shelter from bugs and weather, giving you a cozier camping feel. Think about your needs and the expected weather to make the right choice.

What are the disadvantages of tarp?

The disadvantages of using a tarp for camping include limited rain, wind, and insect protection, reduced privacy, setup complexity, exposure to harsh weather, condensation, and less effective bug protection.

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